Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Sex vs. Gender

It always rankles me a bit when I see gender used in place of sex out of an overwrought sense of political correctness.

Now, comes this observation from Stephanie Sanders, associate director of The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, quoted in the Indiana University alumni magazine:

There's a lot of sloppy terminology out there, and that's not helping things. ...
Just substituting gender in place of of sex for the sake of political correctness is silly.
And so, I might add, is the assertion made in some quarters that "gender" is better because using "sex" will give people the wrong (read: nasty) impression. That's only if you think your primary audience is a bunch of hormone-drenched 14-year-olds.

As writer David Bricker notes: The words have fundamentally different meanings to Sanders and other sex researchers, as well as millions of people whose lives cannot be summed up easily by circling M or F on personal data forms. Sex, you could say, describes parts, while gender describes a person's psychological identity.

Much of the the time in what I read, we really are talking about a person's sex and about sex discrimination -- discrimination based purely on whether one appears to have male or female physical attributes. We should use it that way. That is not to say using "gender" is improper. If we are writing about gender identity, then we should use the term, and gender discrimination might well be appropriate. [I had originally suggested the military's "don't ask, don't tell" might be an example, but see the reply in the update below.]

But as wordsmiths, we should be more judicious in our use of the terms and not just follow the ill-informed herd.

Bricker's article in the November-December issue of Indiana Alumni, should be suggested reading in your newsroom. He does a good job of outlining all the myriad factors of gender identity in plain English, so as a sensitivity tool, this article is invaluable. Indiana, unfortunately, makes the bad decision of keeping most of its magazine off the Web. So while this, its cover story and great resource, is unavailable, we are allowed to access a profile of alumnus Mark Cuban that is a nice read but has much less usefulness. Here's the link to the magazine page, if you want to complain.

Update -- a reply, and a point well taken
Mr. Fisher,

While I agree with your posting that sex and gender shouldn't be conflated for the sake of political correctness, it's also important to keep sexuality and gender clear. The military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy is not about gender. The most feminine of men and masculie of women are still allowed to serve. Instead it's aimed at sexuality. Many homosexual men display traditionally masculine gender traits, just as many lesbians display traditionally feminine gender traits. The military's hang up is not how they construct their gender but with which sex they prefer sleep.

Daniel Wells
Indiana University


At 12/8/04, 9:23 PM, Blogger Graeme Moore said...

Good evening, Mr. Fisher:
Instead of studying for my chemistry final, I have been distracted to CSJ. And there's something I must do--I just can't help myself.
It's nothing but a typo, but nevertheless, what is it? Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy! Ah hah, 'tis. Look, if you would, at the second word of your first graph ... did you look? OK, good. Now, that would have cost you a point or two on a quiz!
OK, OK, you're right, I have nothing better to do, but...
I'll be back soon, as there are several posts I want to comment on.
Your most endearing (slight chuckle) student,

At 12/9/04, 12:17 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Proving once again I've never writen anything that couldn't use an editor. (Thanks for the outpoint; while I was at it I filled in the dropped word in that graf as well.)

At 12/9/04, 10:55 AM, Blogger Graeme Moore said...

Proving once again that you've never WRITTEN ...
OK, enough of my tomfooleries.


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